The Tree of Forgiveness Edward Burne-Jones Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Due to the social controversy about the representation and lack of modesty regarding the male figure in Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones's water-colour painting of Phyllis and Demophoon, 1870, The Tree of Forgiveness, released later in 1882, was a rework that utilized oil paints onto a canvas and provided an alteration with a drape placed over Demophoon's leg and genitals.

Instantaneously, an onlooker of this painting will be drawn to the personal and locked eye-contact between the depictions of both Phyllis and Demophoon and naturally, this will then submerge them into the passion and context that lies behind the image. Additionally, the somber tones of the landscape only further accentuates the delicacy of the colors in the almond tree and intensity of expression between the lovers. Perpetually inspired by the theme and psychology of love and both biblical and mythical themes, The Tree of Forgiveness is no exemption to Jones's interests: based on Greek Mythology and with reference to Chaucer's, Legend of Good Women and Ovid's Heroides, the painting alludes to Phyllis, the Queen of Thrace, who was besotted with Demophoon, son of Theseus.

Whilst staying as a guest at the court of the King of Thrace, Phyllis falls in love with Theseus; however, upon his departure and return to Attica to tend to finalize matters, the length of time that he spends away leads to Phyllis's despair and tragic suicide. Due to the gods taking pity on Phyllis, she is transformed into an almond tree so when Theseus does return, his sense of remorse consumes him and by embracing the almond tree, Phyllis re-emerges. By focusing on Demophoon's remorseful gaze simultaneously to Phyllis's look of sorrow, the depth and passion of their romantic and tumultuous journey is extremely apparent. Surrounded by the blossoming of the tree, the flowers remain strongly symbolic of how life after death can flourish - along with their eternal relationship.

Potentially, the painting could be strongly indicative of Jones's affair with Maria Zambaco during the 1860s as the guilt that is worn on Demophoon's face could likely mirror the guilt that Jones felt towards his wife who he betrayed. However, it is undeniable that the highly exposing canvas painting is not only physically revealing yet also emotionally transparent. The realness and meaning of The Tree of Forgiveness lead it to receive a mixed and varied response - perhaps to raw and thought-provoking for many. For those that wish to observe the painting, it can now be found in several National museums, including the National Museums Liverpool, along with The Lady Lever Art Gallery, Bebington.